Problem Solving: How Good are Elephants?

Elephant intelligence

Elephants have the biggest brains of all land animals

At 5 kg, the elephant brain has more mass than any other land animal, and most contemporary ethologists regard elephants as one of the world’s most intelligent animals – on a par with great apes and dolphins. It would seem that elephants are both doers and thinkers: we know, for example, that they make fly swats out of branches[1], and we also know that they protect other species and mourn their dead, but how good are they at general problem-solving?

An elephant’s brain has a well-developed front region and, from studies of intelligence in other animals, we know this area of the brain is used for problem solving, but testing an elephant’s ability to solve problems presents some unique challenges.

• Elephants are so large; it is difficult to test them safely and ethically.
• The elephant’s unusual morphology (structure) is often a barrier to traditional experiments. Most of these experiments were designed for species with good eyesight, and with paws or beaks for grabbing things.
• Many traditional experiments require behaviours which are unlike those used by wild elephants. Elephants may perform poorly because of behavioural tendencies, not a lack of skills.

For example, in a study [2] in which researchers suspended food out of an elephant’s reach, but gave the elephant a box, the elephant repeatedly pushed the box into position, stood on it and reached for the food. The elephant showed insight, because he knew he could use the box as a step, rather than playing around with it and discovering this by accident. Chimpanzees behave similarly when given sticks to use to reach food, but when sticks were given to elephants the experiment didn’t go well for them, possibly because they rely on their sense of smell for foraging, and so they prioritise their trunk for this use rather than it for carrying things.

Another classic problem-solving test is the floating object task, in which a food reward is placed floating in a tube of water. The animal needs to add water so that the food rises until it is high enough to reach. Humans understand this test once they are about five years old. Many primates and bird species have shown insight by solving this test easily. When elephants were tested, they appeared to lack insight into the task.[3] They learnt either through trial and error, or through guidance from keepers. However, the elephants became more efficient with practice, and once they had learned how to do the task, they remembered how to do it.

Where elephants may sometimes fail problem-solving tests in a research environment, in the wild they have their own unique problems which they learn to solve in their own way. For example, they dig holes with their trunks to find water, and drop large rocks onto electric fences to break the fence or cut the electric circuit. It only takes one elephant to stumble upon a solution, before a whole herd can pick this up through social learning.

Next week I shall be writing about elephants’ self-awareness and what this means for problem-solving as a team. – Holly Collicott

Find out more:
Yirka, B. (2011). Study shows elephants capable of insight. Available: Last accessed 22.11.21.
University of Wyoming. (2020). Asian elephants are capable of using water as a tool. Available: Last accessed 22.11.21.
[1] Hart, B.L et al. (2001). Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching. Animal Behaviour. 62 (5), 839-847.
[2] Foerder, P et al. (2011). Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant. PLoS ONE. 6 (8), e23251.
[3] Barrett, L.P & Benson-Amram, S. (2020). Can Asian Elephants Use Water as a Tool in the Floating Object Task?. Animal Behaviour and Cognition. 7 (3), 310-326.

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